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Nougatine, exceedingly long report

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  • dbird Jul 23, 2006 12:07 AM
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My thanks to all who responded to my request for suggestions for post-theatre dinner last night at or near Time Warner. We decided on Nougatine which seemed a happy solution, as we had tried for reservations at Jean Georges without success on our last two dates but didn't want to embark on a full-blown dining event on this.

The summary:
The food was beautifully presented, perfectly executed, and one dish was nothing short of a revelation; but the service was abrupt, uninformed and neglectful. The room is warm with a comfortable looking bar and a terrace to which I would like to return on a dry evening, but I was shocked at how many people were talking throughout on cell phones (including two consecutive parties at an adjacent table), and there was a very loud, large group of young people who made it difficult to sustain a conversation without leaning in close all evening.

The detail:
Once seated, our waiter asked my companion if she wanted a drink and when she said she would just have water at the moment, I added that I would like mine without ice, and he tore off without asking if I would also like a drink. A water pourer came and poured two glasses of water with ice and when I asked if I might have mine without, I swear he rolled his eyes. We were then served unimpressive dinner rolls with a texture and temperature that suggested they had sat around for a bit, perhaps in a plastic bag. When our waiter reappeared about 10 minutes later he was ready to take our dinner order. I asked for a kir royale and a wine list. Eventually we were supplied with both and he then returned a second time to solicit our order. My friend requested the 'heirloom' watermelon gazpacho and the red snapper with summer squash which emerged as slow cooked 1 inch stands with a custardy interior and a poured coulis of something that turned out to be a gorgeous emerald green but I can't now recall what it was if ever I knew. When the waiter turned to me, I checked, as I always do--even though I was sure the answer in this case would be yes: 'the salmon is wild?' he confirmed that it was. 'Can you tell me, is it Alaskan King? I suppose it isn't Copper River'. His response: 'It is wild Atlantic salmon'. I smiled at him, wondering if he were joking. But I couldn't catch his eye, as it was darting around the room with its pair, already engaged in something more important than my companion and my tiresome self. I pressed on, as truly, I couldn't imagine that a waiter at Jean Georges (essentially) would say such a thing. He must have meant, 'it is wild Pacific salmon' but transposed the oceans in his obvious distraction. 'You know there is no more wild Atlantic salmon?' I asked. He said no ('No'). 'Is it wild or is it Atlantic?'. 'It is Atlantic salmon'.

I might as well have been asking a teen-aged clerk at McDonald's how long the beef had been aged and if it were grass-fed or grass-finished.

He stared at me as I reviewed the menu trying to think of a substitute in light of the news, never once offering or asking if I would like suggestions or more time, which I did finally request.

Anyway I could dismiss the whole attitude as haughtiness, which while unjustifiable and unpleasant I could nevertheless understand; but this man made it clear that he neither knew nor cared about food. That was more unexpected, and at least as offensive.

Throughout the evening, our water glasses were not refilled and we were never offered a second roll--which is the last comment I shall make about the 'service' which nevertheless could not muffle the

Lyrical performance of the kitchen:
An amuse of beet puree (only it was more of a mash, with some texture) & chevre with a demitasse cup of cucumber & honeydew soup (I could smell the cucumber as he set it down, but we enjoyed hearing him identify it anyway-- he was a runner but he spoke as if food mattered, fancy that) sounds greenmarket obvious but was also greenmarket peak: just perfect ingredients, filtered through a stronger personality than evinced at Craft; prepared with restraint rather than simplicity.

Then, then: foie gras strawberry brulee.

My friend, who is better-travelled, better-heeled, and less given to hyperbole than I declared it the best foie gras she had ever tasted (and believe me, a taste was all she got). I don't actually care for strawberries. I find them...obvious. And flirtatious. But here I discovered a depth and purity that transforms my understanding and heretofore, pursuit. But it may be that it is only in this dish that I will appreciate them and I have actually been calculating, it was $18 and I figure I could get three or four for the price of a really mediocre meal at a lot of places in NYC, plus a glass or two....

So it was a crouton with a good piece of a veinless lobe on top of which was a burnt strawberry disk, and there was a smear of a distilled strawberry coulis, clear, not cloying, and black pepper. It was a regal assemblage: balanced, complex, and in no way argumentative. And I just haven't stopped thinking about it and reviewing the fading experience, including the chunk of pepper that caught in the back of my throat and set me coughing.

The foie gras illustrates a philosophy and art I have heard may be more fully expressed at Jean Georges and even at Perry Street? but was certainly not in evidence at JoJo and Spice Market, the only 2 JG restaurants where I have dined so far. It's not just about deliciousness & perfection; I feel as fully supported in my conclusion by the cod I chose as my default main course. While unassailably fresh and well-cooked, the cod was served in an odd pool of tomato based broth, strongly flavored with lemongrass and a pineapple brunoise. Perhaps a slick of balsamic vinegar in the mix? I can't recall how it was described on the menu but certainly didn't order thinking lemongrass and pineapple, both of which I find overpowering. I don't gravitate toward Thai and this was certainly the idea; it was a complex soup which would not have been to my personal taste regardless; furthermore it had nothing to do with the cod. That said, I was impressed by the preparation of the cod on the one hand and the broth on the other, and while I didn't think the dish worked, I thought they were each sufficiently well executed to attest to a skilled and intelligent kitchen about which I hope to learn more very soon.

My friend liked her meal but thought nothing approached the foie; I didn't taste her food because it is just the way I am.

We had a glass of wine each; she a Talley chard and I a Willamette Valley pn from a producer (MN?) of which I was not previously aware. Both fine.

Total was an unbelievable $140 or $150-something for all, before tip.

We are going to the theatre again next Thursday and have a res. at Telepan (I have been 2x and enjoyed v. much-- thanks again for this rec./reminder); if it weren't for the hour I would try to get in to Jean Georges.

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